The Biggest Leadership Failure that Kills Innovation

by Yoram Solomon

When I conducted my doctoral research between 2008 and 2010, I found that autonomy was the strongest single factor that companies and leaders control, that would positively affect employee creativity, and therefore company innovation. The opposite, bureaucracy, was found to be the strongest single factor within the company and leader’s control that would negatively affect those.

In fact, the logo for the Innovation Culture Institute is made of two circles: one that contains autonomy, and one that contains bureaucracy.

The Biggest Leadership Failure that Kills Innovation

My belief was that if a leader gives autonomy, employees will respond by demonstrating accountability, and if the leader imposes bureaucracy, employees will respond by demonstrating CYA (do I really need to spell it out?) behavior.

It was easy to put the blame on leaders, who do not offer their employees autonomy. But, as a leader, would you offer autonomy to every employee?

Let me put this in the form of a question: what would make you, the leader, feel comfortable enough to give your employees the autonomy the so desperately need to take risks and be creative?

The answer is simple: trust. A leader needs to trust employees in order to give them autonomy. If a leader doesn’t trust the employees, there is no way he or she would give them autonomy. They would give them policies and bureaucracy instead.

Can you force a leader to trust employees? No, you can’t.

But in comes another finding from a much later study I conducted. I didn’t expect to reach this finding, but I did, and it explains a lot.

This study started by asking participants what was the most important quality for them in other people. Specifically, their peers, their boss, their employees (reporting to them), salespeople trying to sell them something, government representatives, and in their spouses. After the initial study, I narrowed down the list of qualities to five:

  • Willingness to work hard
  • Willingness to take risk
  • Trustworthiness
  • Intelligence, and–
  • Good looks.

Thankfully, good looks came in last, with only 0.85% of survey respondents. I would think that even that was alarmingly high, but that’s not the point.

Can you guess what was the most important quality across all six types of people (with 351 responses)?

You guessed it–trustworthiness! (and if you didn’t guess it, it’s trustworthiness…)

Trustworthiness was the most important quality in 60.7% of the responses, across all six types of relationships. The other four qualities combined had 39.3%!

So far, so good. No surprises. However, when I broke down the results by the type of people, I found a surprising, and even alarming result.

In five of the six types of people, trustworthiness was ranked as the most important quality in this type of people. In one of them–it didn’t.

Can you guess which one? I bet you can’t.

Employees. When I asked study participants what, as leaders, was the most important quality for them in their employees, trustworthiness was not the top one. The top one was the willingness to work hard, with 47.5% of the results. Trustworthiness came in second, with 38.9%.

This immediately reminded me of a quote by Henry Ford:

Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?

Ladies and gentlemen, it is 2018, and leaders still think that way. I guess that now you know how this latest study of mine correlates to autonomy.

Leaders are not looking for their employees to be trustworthy. First and foremost, they want the employees to be willing to work hard. And if they are not looking for their employees to be trustworthy, they obviously don’t care about trusting those employees. If they don’t trust employees, they will not give them autonomy. Instead, leaders prefer to burden their employees with processes, policies, and bureaucracy. Therefore, they shouldn’t be surprised that, instead of accountability and risk-taking, their employees demonstrate CYA behaviors.

And when employees don’t get autonomy, they are less creative, and without creativity, there could be no innovation.

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Dr. Yoram Solomon is an inventor, creativity researcher, coach, consultant, and trainer to large companies and employees. His Ph.D. examines why people are more creative in startup companies than in mature ones. Yoram was a professor of Technology and Industry Forecasting at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UT Dallas School of Management; is active in regional innovation and tech transfer; and is a speaker and author on predicting technology future and identifying opportunities for market disruption. Follow @yoram

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